James Harthouse, the Utilitarian Romantic

Though many have argued that Dickens used the character of James Harthouse to criticize Romanticism in his novel Hard Times, it is his utilitarianism that makes him such a danger. Harthouse himself notes early in the novel that there are many similarities between himself and the utilitarian Tom Gradgrind—for though Harthouse might in theory live his life for sensation, his disappointment in what he’s found has led him to look at things with a blandly unperturbed eye. “I have seen a little, here and there,” he says, “up and down: I have found it all to be very worthless…and I am going in for your respected father’s opinions—really because I have no choice of opinions, and may as well back them as anything else.” (100) Yet unlike the utilitarians, Harthouse cannot be redeemed by even the illusion of social purpose or responsibility. Dickens is able to illustrate this paucity of feeling by setting Harthouse, in his final scene, against the character of Sissy Jupe– whose earnest modesty and goodwill, coupled with a more elastic kind of sense, brings his own lack of character into sharp relief. It is Sissy, not Harthouse, whom Dickens puts forward as a model worth following—and it is Harthouse, not Sissy, who proves that disingenuousness matters much more than the label (Romantic, Utilitarian, or otherwise) that it is given. The emptiness of sentiment behind Harthouse’s speech is a first clue in this passage concerning his sincerity. When Sissy informs him that he is never to see Louisa again, his choice of words is Romantically dramatic—yet his actual reaction is one of rather speedy resignation. “Well! If it should unhappily appear,” he said, “after due pains and duty on my part, that I am brought to a position so desolate as this banishment, I shall not become the lady’s persecutor.” (174)A life without Louisa is for him apparently comparable to “banishment” or, as he says shortly before, an “exile” (174), and he insists that he considers any such state to be totally “desolate” (174). Yet even as Harthouse paints his pain so vividly, he dismisses it almost in the same breath by reverting to dull, dispassionate language. Any resistance on his part is considered to be nothing more that “due pains and duty,” evidently routine enough to be fulfilled by mere mention alone. His next thought—that he will “not become the lady’s persecutor”—is another example of how vapid powerful language becomes in his hands. The theatricality of the word “persecutor” could suggest that Harthouse feels the full weight of his punishment, and perhaps even more. But like the theater, Harthouse’s world is one of appearance alone, “a conscious polishing of but an ugly surface” (175). For even as he affects real dismay, he readily surrenders the girl he supposedly cares for.It is important to note that though Harthouse is a shallow being, he—like the Utilitarians—is not actually evil. If it is too much to say that his intentions are good, one can at least argue that they are not consciously bad. “I beg to be allowed to assure you,” he says to Sissy, “that I have had no particularly evil intentions, but have glided on from one step to another” (175). His division of Louisa’s seduction into different “steps” signals a cool-headed perspective—almost as if to suggest that Harthouse moved from step to step in the seduction much as he would move from step to step in a mathematical problem. Though he is completely devoid of warm sentiment, he is likewise incapable of any real malevolence because he sees everything before him on the same placid plane. The fact that he was still able, in such a state, to very nearly ruin a woman’s life is proof of the idea that a lack of passion can be far more destructive than a wealth of it. Sissy’s own earnestness serves as a forceful contrast here; “the fervor of this reproach” (174) that she gives completely disarms Harthouse, and at the same time it illustrates Dickens’ own idea of what a model citizen should be. When Harthouse asks Sissy what drove her to find him, she replies that her affection for Louisa motivated her: “I have only the commission of my love for her, and her love for me” (174). The rhythmic regularity of “my love for her, and her love for me” as well as the simplicity of the message itself comes as a soothing balm to Harthouse’s own worthless rhetoric. It is Sissy’s sense of human decency, her true compassion for others, that separates her from utilitarians like Gradgrind and alleged anti-utilitarians like Harthouse, who each view the world as a set of frigid observations. Yet Sissy herself is not completely devoid of logic, which is crucial to Dickens’ idea that sentimentality must be tempered with practicality. In her justification to Harthouse Sissy moves steadily from emotion to fact—saying first that she loves Louisa, next that Louisa has given Sissy her trust, and lastly that “I know something of her character and her marriage” (174). Her love for Louisa is perhaps of utmost importance, but at the same time Sissy is driven by incontrovertible knowledge, knowledge based on observation and reflection. Like Harthouse, Sissy knows about the failure of Louisa’s marriage, and this information is powerful; yet, even as she admits its importance, Sissy does not depend on it entirely. She does not know everything about Louisa; Dickens is careful to say that she only knows “something.” To he and Sissy both, knowing something and feeling something is infinitely better than knowing everything and feeling nothing, like the Utilitarians, or knowing nothing and feeling everything, like the Romantics. In short, Sissy embodies the best parts of two perilous extremities—emerging from the fray as an example for readers to follow. Harthouse, on the other hand, embodies the worst parts of each: He lacks a social conscience, like many a Romantic, but he’s completely unfeeling, like many a utilitarian. Left with more defects than he perhaps has a right to, he is ultimately left to his own idleness and lack of purpose, unable or unwilling to reform. It is interesting to note that though Harthouse remains unchanged, his utilitarian counterpart Gradgrind is transformed by the novel’s end into something to be admired—suggesting that, though both Harthouse and Gradgrind were initially cursed with an unfeeling perspective, Gradgrind was saved by a real desire to be useful. Harthouse, indifferent to the last, sails out of the novel as its greatest scoundrel–with only a vague sense of his own inadequacy and absolutely no inclination to do anything about it.

Leave a Comment